LIMEX: An Up-and-Coming Substitute for Plastic and Paper

"LIMEX" is a new eco-friendly material made primarily from limestone, developed and manufactured by TBM—a Japan-based unicorn company that is garnering considerable attention for having been selected as "noteworthy" at the Japan-U.S. Innovation Awards in 2017, an accolade previously won by Tesla and LINE. Making use of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government support mechanisms, TBM continues to take on new business challenges, one by one.
The limestone (back) that is the primary ingredient in LIMEX, and LIMEX pellets (front). The pellets are melted and then poured into a mold to serve various purposes.

An Eco-Friendly, Limestone-Based Material?

A serious issue in modern society is the large-scale consumption and disposal of plastic, and the resource depletion and greenhouse gas emissions that result from it. Garnering attention as a potential countermeasure is the new material "LIMEX." LIMEX is made primarily from limestone, a resource that is plentiful in Japan and that does not have to be imported. When mixed with plastic and poured into molds, it can be used for various purposes, including as printing paper, plastic bags, food packaging, and construction material. Early on, LIMEX gained attention as a substitute for paper that could be made without wood pulp, and with significantly less water. Nowadays, however, it is being considered more as a substitute for plastic, as it can be made with less than half of the petroleum-derived resin of typical plastic.

The company that developed this new material is TBM Co., Ltd. The company's chief executive officer, Yamasaki Nobuyoshi, had been involved in importing a Taiwan-made paper substitute called stone paper to Japan since 2008, before the company was established. This paper, however, had not been able to fulfill the quality standards sought by Japanese customers—in terms of paper thickness or surface finish, for example. So, in 2010, he began working to develop this new material himself. The opportunity for commercialization came when the business was selected to receive a subsidy from the Innovation Center Establishment Assistance Program by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in 2013. The following year, the LIMEX patent was approved, and the company used the subsidy they had received to begin construction of a factory.

In 2016, they began officially manufacturing business cards made from LIMEX. Since then, they have gradually expanded their customer base, signing contracts for joint development and sales with companies like Dentsu, Toppan, RAKSUL, and Ricoh. Major delicatessen supplier RF1 (Rock Field Co., Ltd.) also began utilizing packaging made with LIMEX in June 2022. With all of these developments, it seems that more and more consumers will begin to see LIMEX-based products popping up in their daily lives.

There is a wide variety of LIMEX products, from paper substitutes for leaflets, posters, and maps, to food containers, construction material, and more. LIMEX products are highly durable and water-resistant.

Overseas Development as a Goal Since the Company's Inception

By working to realize a circular economy and taking actions to combat climate change, TBM is taking on world-scale issues. And indeed, the company has considered developing the business internationally since its inception. There are countries throughout the world that rely on imports for paper, due to a shortage of water and a subsequent lack of trees, and there are others that are concerned about depleting oil resources.

"Instead of exporting our products to these countries from Japan, we want to create a business model where we coordinate with local partners, train local employees, and have them handle the operations. We could also create jobs locally by building factories," says Sakai Hironari of the Corporate Planning Division of TBM Co., Ltd. The company is working to build business alliances for local production in countries like Mongolia and China, having established an overseas subsidiary in Vietnam in 2021.

Kawaue Tetsuya of LIMEX Business Headquarters says, "In July 2021, we signed a capital and business alliance with the SK Group, a Korean corporate group that's involved mainly in the petroleum refining and telecommunications businesses. We'll be working to develop biodegradable LIMEX by combining the biodegradable material owned by chemical manufacturer in the SK Group with our technologies at TBM."

Success Undergirded by Tokyo Metropolitan Government Support Mechanisms

Currently, all of the product development at TBM takes place at their Technology Center in Arakawa City, Tokyo. The products developed at the center are mass-produced at the factory in Miyagi Prefecture, as well as at overseas production sites in countries like Vietnam.

Before the move to Arakawa City, the TBM lab had been located in the Tokyo Metropolitan Industrial Technology Research Institute in Koto City, Tokyo. "There are a lot of challenges that start-ups must overcome as they grow. But we've received a lot of help through the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) support mechanisms—it wasn't just the subsidy, they also prepared a facility for us, and gave us hands-on advice and consultations," says Sakai.

In 2017, LIMEX was selected to be a "Tokyo Metropolitan Government trial order authorization good," with the material being used for Toei Subway novelty goods and water cups at the Tokyo Marathon. Basic patents for LIMEX have been approved in 40 countries throughout the world, and TBM has used the TMG subsidy to apply for some of these patents as well. "A lot of start-ups recognize the importance of acquiring patents but give up because of the time and cost required to get them. So, the support we've gotten from TMG has been very helpful."

There is a pile of limestone next to the entrance to TBM Headquarters. From left to right: Sakai Hironari of the Corporate Planning Division, Sakai Natsumi of the Brand & Communication Center, and Kawaue Tetsuya of LIMEX Business Headquarters.

Efforts to Promote the "Circular" Use of Resources

LIMEX products are made with different components from those of pure paper or plastic, meaning they cannot be disposed of through municipalities' paper-collection or plastic-recycling services. As such, there were many challenges to recycling LIMEX products, with—for instance—people having to take them to designated collection boxes to recycle them. In response, TBM built a recycling factory in Yokosuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture that collects and automatically sorts LIMEX and plastic, and uses it to manufacture recycled pellets. The factory began operations in November 2022.

TBM is also working to promote a recycled material called "CirculeX," which is made with over 50% recycled materials like used plastic. Efforts to work towards the SDGs are accelerating. In this kind of circumstance, it is becoming increasingly important for each and every individual to be more environmentally conscious and act accordingly—whether by switching over to more eco-friendly materials or purchasing more sustainable products.

Interview and writing by Kumano Yuka
Photos by Tonomura Seiji
Translation by Amitt